The obsession with endings is a peculiar one. Perhaps it’s a result of having been indoctrinated by a lifetime of movies with “surprise twists”, or stories so poorly written that they rely on their final hook. But however we’ve come to this place, it’s one that fails to recognise the real pleasure of being told a story. Mass Effect 3 tells a story, and I’m here to defend it.
Clearly this post contains spoilers. All of them.
Another trap gamers have fallen into is the sheer disgust with which the notion of “being told a story” is met. The distinction with gaming, you see, is you get to make choices, and those choices have consequences, and thus the game is unique to us. That notion makes sense in a game like Minecraft, but applying it to narrative, pre-scripted projects like the Mass Effect series is just naive. Even in a game like Dragon Age, where our choices lead to what feels like a unique conclusion just for us, we still fought the same big dragon, still followed the exact same path, and merely received cosmetic differences, none unique but shared by tens/hundreds of thousands of others. And that’s great! Because BioWare had a story to tell, and they were going to tell it.
I feel like so many of people’s complaints about Mass Effect 3’s apparent lack of consequence would have been addressed by something as tacky as Dragon Age’s flash-card descriptions of what had happened to the characters in your party. Like an Eighties movie freeze-framing at the end and telling us who went on to discover a cure for cancer, and who finally settled down and had three kids, it certainly gives an immediately satisfying sense of closure, and perhaps would have dealt with a lot of the grumbling. But I’d argue it robs the player of so much potential for those characters. “Grunt went on to form a band, Grunt And The Tube Babies, who had 91 top ten hits in the Galactic Billboard, thanks to Shepard’s love and support.” I loved and supported Grunt! That means my choices were meaningful!
But here’s the thing: My choices did have consequences. So many, on so many of the characters, in so many ways. It’s just, those consequences occurred on my long path toward the ending. And, well, that’s bloody brilliant, isn’t it?
Many are upset by the final moments, a three-way decision that is not impacted upon by the rest of the game, as if this invalidates everything that came before it. But two things. 1) What about everything that came before it? 2) How is that decision not impacted upon by the previous three games?!
A choice I made wiped out an entire species. Unable to choose the Quarians’ wrath over the Geth’s capitulation, I was unaware that giving them the option to choose would mean seeing them wiped out of existence. Even less that Tali would throw herself off a cliff in understandable suicidal misery. And that choice, that decision to give the freshly sentient Geth my support, had one hell of a consequence on the galaxy. In that final battle the Geth fought alongside the Alliance forces, something that would have seemed impossible at the end of Mass Effect 1. The Quarian were all dead, every last one of them. My actions had consequences, and they were beyond huge.
I forged cooperation between the Krogan and the Turians. I’ve no idea if that’s a pre-scripted inevitability, or the result of my choices, and crucially I don’t care. As a result of what I did, however it came about, another remarkable change occurred in the galaxy. One with enormously far-reaching consequences. I saw the Salarians, albeit unwillingly, give the Krogan life. My involvement saw that real, extraordinary change occur, whether a race was broken free from a curse that would have seen them wiped out. I made the decision that even though there may be terrible consequences, this species deserved the right to breed.
Those are some of the massive consequences my actions had. Then there were the dozens and dozens of minor, more personal ones. The relationships I forged, the people I loved, the comments I made. They all influenced not only the on-going relationships with other characters, but so crucially, the moments themselves. By choosing to be supportive rather than strict, the instance of that conversation changed, the tone was a consequence of my actions, and the reactions of others were changed in context. Because I choose to shoot down the advances of Traynor, I didn’t have a sexual relationship with her. Because I opted to be supportive of Joker and EDI’s relationship, they found love. Because I said a kind thing, rather than a cruel thing to Liara, she felt good in a moment, rather than bad.
Characters I almost ignored, like James Vega and Ashley Williams, still were impacted by my presence in their lives, and mine was impacted by them. I encouraged Vega to join the N7. I teased Ashley when she was hungover, rather than admonished. And while all those things may have made no difference to whether the Reapers were defeated, of course they had consequences on my game. Consequences in those instances, affecting my story and toning my experience.
But what about those final three choices. Yes, of course, they were a strange way to finish. But to suggest that they were out of the blue is absolutely untrue. And to write off the “ghost boy” is to make the same sad mistake that so many do with the beach scene in Contact, when we see Ellie’s father. An alien/god choosing to appear in a meaningful form obviously does not mean it is that thing. The Catalyst appearing as that small boy could hardly have been more established by the game, via three separate dream sequences that demonstrated quite what a devastating effect his death had had on Shepard. He came to represent all the terrible deaths on Earth, and indeed throughout the galaxy, that Shepard was unable to stop. He haunted her dreams because he was the catalyst for her fear and drive. (Although you could argue that he himself did get used up in the reaction.) For the Catalyst to choose his form to appear to Shepard made sense – it was designed to create an emotional reaction in her, to represent the potential for gain after so much loss.
And then the choices themselves. Of course anyone is welcome to dislike the options, or dislike that they’re there at all, but to suggest they’re not relevant to the games isn’t fair. There was certainly a failure to properly define that it all comes down to the creation of Synthetics, and their eventual destruction of Organics, and I am confused by how an apparently ancient Synthetic race is the one arguing this. But as Shepard herself appeals, this is the result of an ancient race having lost its way. They firmly believe that what they do is for the good of the galaxy, and that they’re preserving these races in Reaper form, but they do not see how evil their actions have become. They’re wrong. But they’re wrong from a position of enormous power, and it’s a power that not only dominates the worlds of Mass Effect, but also the player. Those three choices – those are what you get, from a wayward god-like species that’s in control. Don’t like the options? Hell, maybe that’s the point.
My choice – to choose synthesis – was utterly and completely influenced by the three games I’d played. I had seen the potential, the evolution of the Geth into a race capable of independent choice, the relationship between an AI and a human, and the possibility of a massive uniting step forward from a repeating pattern that had gone on for countless aeons. It may be sci-fi hokum that it’s possible, it may spring from nowhere that a big wobbly green light could turn all robots and humans into robothumans. But I was cool with Mass Effect Relays transporting me millions of lightyears around the galaxy in only the time it took for one maddeningly unskippable cutscene to play through. I’m okay with made up sci-fi nonsense in my made up sci-fi nonsense.
The consequence of having played three superb games – games in which I’d felt relationships with characters like in nothing else I’ve played – played out in that choice.
I commented to others as I played the game over the last week how exciting it was that decisions I’d made five years ago were having an impact on the story I was being told now. My being able to continue a relationship with Garrus was a joy, and made a huge difference to how I experienced the game. The races I’d saved being present at the end, fighting alongside me, was more important to me than whether it actually made any difference to what happened.
I’ve played each game in the series once. At around 30 hours a time, that’s plenty for me. So I’ve not dissected them like a detached scientist, analysing which parts would have been the same no matter what I did. I find it so remarkable that so much of people’s fury with the game comes not in what they experienced, but what they learned about their experience after. For me, I filled up that bar with green, I made the choices that mattered to me, and in those final scenes I saw thousands and thousands of ships turn up to fight for Earth. That was my experience as I played, and I adored it. It was dark, brutal, often devastating. It was funny, silly and often heart-warming. In the end, it was the story of a small group of friends, and their particular experience of the end of the worlds. A story about the hope to be found in utter devastation.
The ending may not have matched up to your wishes. Despite my vociferous support for it, I can empathise with a number the arguments. But it was not a denial of choice or consequence – it was a series of three games about choice and consequence, the two happening constantly throughout. And good grief, thank goodness it didn’t fade to black and leave everything ambiguous, with just enough room for 900 more sequels.
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BioWare, feature, Mass Effect 3, spoilers,
“You are now the Avatar of this cycle. The examplar of victory. Not just for Humans or Turians or Protheans, but for all life. Every soul that has ever lived is watching this moment. But I know you will see this through to the end for all of us, no matter the cost.”
Ah, yes. Today is the day I finally open up this can of worms on my little corner of the internet.
Like it or hate it (usually most people hate it, and I myself am not much of a fan) the way that the Mass Effect trilogy concluded in Mass Effect 3 did pose an interesting moral dilemma between the four possible choices that you had: Destroy, Control, Synthesis, and the secret Refusal ending.
The debate of “Which ending was the best?” is one that still rages on between members of the franchise’s fanbase to this day, from Reddit threads to Twitter feeds to YouTube videos.
So, in the wake of the absolute mess created by Mass Effect: Andromeda (which edged out Destiny 2 as the most disappointing game of 2017 for me) and its numerous failures, I thought I would return to this famed point of contention and throw my hat in the ring. In this article, I will rank the endings from best to worst, logically making a case for each choice.
Also, it’s important to note that while I do love the indoctrination theory, I’m suspending my belief in it for this article and assuming that what we see on screen is what actually what happens in the story. In addition, I’m referring to Shepard as a male in this piece because that’s always the sex I chose for Shepard.
Destroy is ultimately my favorite ending of the four available for two reasons: it’s what I feel best suits Shepard’s character, and is also the least risky option.
Destroying the Reapers was Shepard’s intent all along, as evidenced by this iconic line:
“We destroy them, or they destroy us.”
— Commander Shepard
It’s a simplistic approach to the threat of the Reaper invasion to be sure, but it’s also the best way to completely prevent the Reapers from ever being a threat again while simultaneously laving the least potentially devastating drawbacks. The other choices all bring way too many risks.
Yes, I can hear you furiously typing right about now. What about the Geth? EDI? Any other artificial intelligence? Are their deaths not significant?
Believe me, having to sacrifice these beings, especiallythe Geth, is heart-wrenching. However, the entirety of the Mass Effect story up to this point has been filled with sacrifice. Unfathomable amounts of soldiers have been sacrificed fighting the Collectors and the Reapers. Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko valiantly sacrificed themselves on Virmire in order to complete the mission. Shepard was forced to sacrifice 300,000 Batarians (the entire Bahak system) in Mass Effect 2’s Arrival DLC just to delay the Reapers.
My point is this: this entire saga is full of instances in which sacrifices are 100% necessary in order to make progress against the Reapers. It isn’t an even fight, as Mass Effect 3’s opening sequence makes hauntingly clear. In order to even have a chance, sacrifice is inevitable. So, yes. I believe that the extinction of the Geth and all other AI is an acceptable casualty if it means that the Reapers will be permanently destroyed.
The fact that Shepard has made countless decisions to sacrifice others for the betterment of the galaxy before makes him the most likely person to choose Destroy ever, too. While it’s never been easy for Shepard to do this, he’s never been one to shy away from what needs to be done, either. The best example of this is the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, in which he and his crew fly straight into the belly of the beast in order to prevent the Collectors from continuing their activities. They know their chances of survival are slim, and (depending on how you prepared beforehand) some of your crew can, in fact, end up giving their lives here. But to Shepard, the mission comes first. The Collectors needed to be stopped — just as the Reapers do.
It’s also worth noting that, of all the drawbacks from the four choices, I think the death of the Geth, EDI, etc. is the one that can be alleviated the most moving forward. Synthetics may be killed by the Crucible when choosing Destroy, but that doesn’t mean that more can’t be made. The inhabitants of the galaxy didn’t just suddenly forget how to make artificial intelligence, albeit it has been banned for generations in-universe. But still, you get my point. Unlike an organic species, synthetic ones can “cheat” extinction if their creators, well, create them once again.
Control is, in my opinion, the next best ending after Destroy. While the benefit of Shepard controlling the Reapers is obvious, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize how this could all go terribly wrong.
Control certainly sounds amazing on paper: prevent the Reapers from killing everyone in the galaxy, while also preventing the deaths of those who would otherwise bite the dust if you had chosen Destroy. As an added bonus, Shepard now acts as the police force for the galaxy, using his ability to command the Reapers in a peacekeeping role.
Aside from Shepard losing his human form, it’s a perfect solution. Except, there’s just one problem. Power corrupts.
Of course, you can make the argument that Shepard wouldn’t use the power of the Reapers in an evil way, and I would agree with you. But is that a chance that should be taken? The power to force the galaxy into submission is something nobody as ever had before, and while we all like to think Shepard is an infallible hero, the truth is that he’s a human being, just like us — for better or for worse. For that reason, I consider Control less viable than Destroy. It puts the entire future of the galaxy at risk on the chance that Shepard will resist that devilish voice in the back of his head.
“No. I’m going to end this war on my terms. I fight for freedom. Mine, and everyone’s. I fight for the right to choose our own fate. And if I die, I’ll die knowing that I did everything I could to stop you. And I’ll die free.”
— Commander Shepard
These are the infamous last words of Shepard during the Refusal ending, in which Shepard decides to allow the Reapers to complete their cycle and put stock in the future cycle in the hope they will find a way to defeat the Reapers on their own terms.
The writing here is incredibly mediocre, in my opinion. As I’ve already mentioned, Shepard is a man who knows that sacrifice in this war is inevitable. I don’t believe that he would refuse to sacrifice our right to fight this war on our terms. Conventional war is something that has only proven to delay the Reapers, not achieve victory over them. Shepard knows that, somehow, they need to be stopped. And yet here he stands, presented with three different options that will allow him to do so, and he rejects them all because of the fact that there’s not another way? Especially when the lives of billions are in his hands?
No. If Shepard is given a viable avenue in which he can save the galaxy from the Reapers, he’s going to take it, goddammit. To refuse to make a choice would be logically stupid, and morally wrong.
Easily, the worst ending is Synthesis.
Mass Effect 3 certainly does a good job of selling it as the best one, though — ending the eternal conflict between synthetics and organics, while also merging the two and achieving peak evolution.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot wrong here with Synthesis. So much so, that I think it’s objectively a bad ending. Here’s why.
First off, the ending itself being unashamedly nonsensical. Mass Effect is and always has been a grounded science-fiction universe, designed with realism (or at the very least, psuedo-realism) in mind. One only has to take a look at the codex in any of the original trilogy’s games to see this. Almost everything in this universe has some sort of detailed explanation, including Reaper indoctrination.
With Synthesis, though…not even close. The Starchild tells you that the Crucible’s energy, when “released in this way”, literally rewrites everyone’s DNA and merges organics with synthetics. I’m willing to accept this, given the way that the Crucible’s energy can send out a destructive wave, or transfer Shepard’s conscience to the Reapers in some (admittedly out there) type of digital brain transplant. But both of those concepts are significantly less complicated than this space magic, and therein lies the problem — it isn’t even clear what Synthesis does.
Do we become half metal, half flesh? Do our minds all become connected in some form of network, like the Geth? What about nutrition? Do all of the species of the galaxy now share a requirement for the same foodstuffs? The Starchild says “there will be peace” — is that just an educated guess, or does that mean there’s actually going to be some form of program uploaded to our brains that prevents conflict entirely?
As you can imagine, the questions go on and on, and the answers to them are incredibly important. Say an outside threat comes into the Milky Way, and discovers that everyone in the galaxy shares some form of synthetic DNA structure. What if they target that specifically? All of the sudden, the entire galaxy shares a weakness.
This is something we’ve seen happen in Mass Effect before, to both the Geth and also to the Protheans (in a different way).
In Mass Effect 3, the Quarians develop a countermeasure to the Geth’s intelligence network. By using it, they are able to weaken the entire race, nearly taking Rannoch back before the Geth are forced to utilize a Reaper upgrade. In addition to this, Javik says in a conversation with Shepard that the reason his species lost the war with the Reapers was because they were too homogenized. An enemy that has the ability to adapt quickly and effectively will always defeat foes that share a common weakness. The lack of clarity with Synthesis, and the fact that every species shares the distinctive green eyes during the Extended Cut, tells me that the result of Synthesis is indeed this dangerous homogeneity.
The next issue I have is in regards to the flaw in the Starchild’s logic. According to him, and according to the Reapers, synthetic and organic life cannot coexist as they are. War will always be inevitable, and if nothing is done, synthetics could eventually wipe out organics.
There are two problems with this.
Firstly, if you manage to get the Geth and the Quarians to achieve peace on Rannoch, then you’ve completely proven the Reapers wrong. And yet, there’s no option to bring this up to the Starchild during your conversation with him. I hate that.
Second, it’s important to remember that organics always go to war with organics. From the real-world history of humanity to the in-universe conflicts between the Krogan and Turians, organic life goes to war on itself. The issue isn’t mutually exclusive to synthetics, and for this reason I question if Synthesis solves this problem at all. Unless there’s some sort of program in our minds that won’t let us get violent, what’s stopping the synthesized species from fighting each other over what they’ve always fought over?
Finally, there’s the moral implications with Synthesis. Is it right that one man should force the entire galaxy into homogeneity? What if this isn’t what people want? As much as the Synthesis Extended Cut scene paints it as some glorious solution to everything, I highly doubt it would be perceived as such by the inhabitants of this universe.
It’s on an equal level of immoral with the Refusal ending, and while Control is arguably immoral as well (what with Shepard basically becoming God) there’s a much better chance that things will work out in that ending.
It is for all of these reasons that I ultimately find Synthesis to be, without question, the worst ending to Mass Effect 3.
This one was fun to write I’ve had thoughts about these endings for a long time, and I’m happy I made the decision to put them on my blog. Even when talking about one of the worst moments in the series, I still love talking about the Mass Effect trilogy.
What did you think of my breakdown of the four endings? Let me know here or on my Twitter. Also, please consider supporting me on Patreon if you enjoy my work!
As always, big thank you to Ardent Prayer for his generous pledge per article I write. Love you, dude. Speaking of Ardent, the article he requested from me this month is coming up next week! Here’s a teaser:
By the way, there’s more to come from me regarding Mass Effect on the eighth anniversary of Mass Effect 2’s release, so keep an eye out for that come January 26th! I also wrote an in-depth character analysis of Tali way back when, so feel free to check that out too.
Thanks so much for reading. Until next time, friends.